Tech-savvy teaching: how a Fargo 2nd grade teacher teaches a techie generation

It’s Genius Hour in Kayla Delzer’s second grade classroom at Westside Elementary. A group of girls huddle around an iPad, dragging and dropping images into a collage. To the left, a boy is testing out his tin-can robot – one he taught himself to make solely from watching YouTube videos. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, another student uses an iPad to pull up web diagrams on Benjamin Franklin.

I walk through the rainbow streamers, nearly ruining some iPad photos a young girl named Greta is snapping for a movie.

“Hey, you almost photobombed!” she yells, laughing.

Marius welcomes us to the classroom.

Marius welcomes us to the classroom.

I’m here with a photographer because of Mrs. Delzer’s speech at TEDxFargo’s Open Mic event, which won her spot in the final line up for TEDxFargo on July 23. In her two-minute pitch, Delzer spoke passionately about the necessity of integrating technology into the modern classroom.

“These students have never known life without iPads, smartphones, or Internet,” she said in her pitch. “Saying you’re ‘just not tech-savvy’ is like saying you’re ‘just not good at learning.’”

Her message struck a chord, and she won with 629 combined likes and re-tweets (including those from her students.) Her speech for TEDxFargo is called “Leadership Today to Reimagine Tomorrow.”

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Standing in her classroom, the energy that propelled her to first place is obvious. During Genius Hour each week, the students work on their Passion Projects, Mrs. Delzer explains – something they chose at the start of the year to work on independently.

The idea stems from Google’s encouragement for employees to use 20% of their time for personal projects – a method that yielded successes such as Google News, Gmail, and even AdSense. For Mrs. Delzer’s students, it has resulted in everything from students filming sign language tutorials to intense 3D printing research.

Mya and Josie practice sign languag from a video they filmed.

Christian, the self-proclaimed 3D printing master of the class, is crouched on the floor making material with a 3D printed pen when we ask him about his passion project.

“We have to see how it all operates, but we’re building a 3D printer,” the 8-year-old tells me confidently, before sharing a multitude of YouTube videos on the capabilities of 3D printing. Mrs. Delzer pokes her head in and says, “That’s the kind of technology that trans-”

“FORMS!” shout the students.

Christian works intensely with his 3D printing pen.

Christian works intensely with his 3D printing pen.

Tech-savvy teaching for tech-savvy kids

Having a Genius Hour is just one of the ways that Mrs. Delzer weaves technology into her classroom studies. As opposed to what older generations experienced growing up, like having just one hour of computer lab, this new tech-savvy generation demands that technology be integrated into all aspects of education, Delzer said.

“People have always referred to technology as a separate tool. But now, technology is a part of everything that you do,” she said. “It’s part of math, it’s part of writing, it’s part of word study. It’s not separate any more.”

The students are a clear testimony to Delzer’s philosophy. They chattered excitedly to me about how iPad games have helped them learn about everything, “from sign language to multiplying,” a girl named Mya exclaims. Most of them claim that they regularly use tablets or iPads at their homes.

“Even some of my quietest kids just shine when they get to make an iMovie or a collage, or show how they broke the code on Cargo-bot,” Delzer said. “It gives everyone a voice.”

Marius demonstrates how to code with Cargo-bot.

Marius demonstrates how to code with Cargo-bot.

Learning the foundations of coding is an important part of class studies for Mrs. Delzer. The students spend time practicing with apps like Kodable, Cargo-bot, or Scratch.

“Why do we need to learn how to code?” Mrs. Delzer asks the students.

“Because there’s going to be codes in everything,” Christian answers.

“That’s right. Lots of the jobs you’re going to have, you’ll need to learn how to -”

“CODE!” shout the students.

The class also uses technology as a social tool, engaging in social media and hosting Google Hangouts with other classrooms, teachers, and experts. Each day there is a Tweeter of the day, a student that sends 3 or more live tweets on their class Twitter account, TweetingTopDogs. Each week there is a Blogger of the week, who is responsible for taking 5 photos on the iPad, e-mailing them to their own computer, and posting them with a description. And each month, the students create a video newsletter to showcase what they’re doing at school and send to their parents.

“I was Blogger of the week once,” a student named Melaena tells me, proudly. “I like taking pictures.”

One of the most memorable Google Hangouts, Delzer and her students agreed, was when they spoke with Brad Waid from Two Guys with Ipads, who is also a personal friend and mentor to Mrs. Delzer.

Becoming a Digital Citizen

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As much as they know how to Tweet, blog, and work an iPad, Delzer’s kids are also well aware of what it means to be a Digital Citizen. I listened as they each listed the do’s and don’ts of Internet behavior; never share personal information, only go to appropriate websites, and always report cyber-bullying to an adult.

“There’s cookies that can make you leave a bad digital footprint,” explains 8-year-old Melaena. “And 93% of jobs are hired based on your digital footprint.”

The class rules, Delzer explained, are never Tweet anything they wouldn’t say to someone’s face, or in front of their grandma.

“Really, I think everyone should have those rules,” she said.

Teaching Digital Citizenship is one of two crucial components that come with integrating tech into a classroom, Delzer said. The second part is Parent Education. At the beginning of the year she explains to the parents what tech they will be using, as well as why, and how they will be using it.

“I’m finding that parents are very, very, very grateful to know that I’m going to be teaching about digital citizenship and responsibility, as soon as the kids have the devices,” Delzer said. “Parents feel the pressure that it’s all on them – but that’s part of my job now. They’re using that in my classroom.”

Posting daily about their classroom activities also creates transparency for the parents, and helps to establish their classroom brand, Delzer said.

Building for the future

Slowly but surely, other classrooms are adopting similar models. Delzer, who’s been a teacher for 7 years, said she first began taking steps to integrate technology in the classroom around 3 years ago when she began writing a blog. Seeing the positive support from other teachers encouraged her to keep sharing.

Greta (left) is filming a movie on an iPad to edit on iMovie.

Greta (left) is filming a movie on an iPad to edit on iMovie.

Now, she speaks on the subject at STEM conferences across the nation. Everywhere she goes, educators of all fields are eager to hear how technology can be implemented in their teaching methods.

“The last 3 years, the tech integration across lots of classrooms is really blowing up,” Delzer said. “There’s kind of this paradigm shift happening in education right now, where it used to be that the teacher knew everything – but for me there’s something so cool about releasing some of that control to the kids. It’s really improved, but there’s still a lot to do.”

Speaking in front of hundreds of people, soon to be over a thousand at TEDxFargo, would have never crossed Delzer’s mind as a shy teacher just a few years ago. But now, she’s motivated by knowing it’s a message that must be shared.

“I have to do it now. I need to get that word out,” she said. “It’s really not an option anymore.”

Come see Kayla Delzer speak at TEDxFargo on July 23. Buy tickets here!

Follow Mrs. Delzer’s class on Twitter @TweetingTopDogs

Photos by Liv Stromme.

Marisa Jackels

Marisa Jackels

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